If there's one thing I learned to do well in college, it was how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. The palatial estate I shared with seven other guys during my last two years at Ohio State was freshly renovated and featured a deluxe gas range that yielded a toasty, gooey stack of goodness in the blink of an eye. Just outside the kitchen was a tandem of living rooms- one with a massive television and a stripper pole, the other with a Tiki built around an industry-grade bar fridge that never ran out of Coors Light. Compared to the claustrophobic rowhouses my friends were crammed in to, this place was the Ritz Carlton. At $425 per month, it was also just as rich. I ate grilled cheese sandwiches by the fistful because I, like most college students, was flat broke.
Beyond the week of couch surfing I undertook while our realtor took his sweet time coating our hardwood floors in a what must have 15 coats of varnish, I never gave much thought to alternate living options. "Go big or go to community college," I recall thinking as I signed the lease. Come to think of it, I never even considered saving money by doing the latter or—gasp!—not going to college at all. If only I knew I'd be paying the tab on my gilded undergrad years for decades then maybe I would have sought a thriftier way to live. I know now I didn't need 75 percent of the junk I owned in my early twenties, and would've been just fine in a tiny flat by the railroad tracks. Heck, I may have even considered living in a van—a plan that worked out wonderfully for a Duke University grad student named Ken Ilgunas.
In his memoir Walden On Wheels—which has gotten attention from the New York Times and The Tonight Show—I got the feeling that Ilgunas's upbringing was a lot like mine: an average middle-class guy growing up on the fringe of a Rust Belt boomtown. Ken took nothing for granted, but the suburbs of Buffalo yielded no better options than the whitebread status quo: go to college, get a degree, then get a job. Ilgunas was in the middle of doing just that at as a commuter at the University at Buffalo when a moment of clairvoyance came to him while idling in his used Oldsmobile: ditch the shitty job as a part-time cart wrangler at Home Depot and go work at a truck stop in Alaska all summer.
And so he did.
Ilgunas returned from Alaska with a newfound sense of vigor and purpose. He graduated from UB with an English degree and no other job skills to speak of, so he returned to the Great North with a new goal in mind: financial liberation. He spent the next year conquering mountains, both literal and proverbial: whether it was a remote mountain in the Alaskan wilderness or the mountain of debt he incurred while drifting aimlessly through college, Ilgunas was determined to get free.
For most of our generation, the thought of ever being able to pay off an average debt-load of almost $27,000 in a lifetime is ludicrous. That he was capable of getting it knocked out in less time than was spent accruing the debt in the first place is no small feat, but freedom from the shackles of loan payments was not the terminus of the his journey. Thirsting for the kind of knowledge he was unable to find on his own in the wilderness, Ilgunas applied to a handful of masters programs in liberal arts. After getting rejected by almost a dozen schools, he was finally accepted in to a program at Duke University, an elite liberal arts college in Durham, North Carolina. While thrilled by the prospect of being immersed in academia on his own terms, one thing was still out of his hands: the cost. How does one emerge from a graduate program at a prestigious southern college without going in the red? For Ken, the answer was simple: find a way to rough it. After mulling over his options, a unique approach to roughing it came in the form of living in a campus parking lot. In a van.
Having spent years living simply on the edge of civilization in Alaska and Canada, the idea of urban van camping—"vandwelling" as it's commonly known—was a no-brainer for Ilgunas.
"I wasn't at all interested in getting an apartment," he says of the time he spent brainstorming ways to get through grad school on the cheap. "Part of the whole can thing was practical, to save money, but that was only half of it. The other half was the challenge and the adventure of it, to see if I could do it."
Staying under the radar of anyone and everyone became Ilgunas's raison d'être. Besides having to sneak in and out of his home to go undetected by fellow students or the dreaded campus security detail, he was finding himself to be patently anti-social in order to keep his hermitage a secret. Keeping the secret was driving him nuts, but his fear of being outed as the guy in the "creepy red van" in the Mill Street lot forced him to keep his distance from just about everyone.
"My level of secrecy at the beginning was ridiculous," Ken said. "Not telling anyone where you live and avoiding conversations to that end for almost a year—there's something sociopathic about that."
Other than telling a drunk hobo on the street about his secluded life for the sake of having told someone, Ken spent his first year as a loner with a secret. Despite the nature of this column, hearing Ken say this hit me like a sack of bricks. Meeting and connecting new people comes easy to me, which makes the requisite patter that's part of being a newly minted Portlander that much more frustrating.
Rather than make light of the fact that I'm kinda sorta maybe a little bit homeless, I typically mumble something about a non-descript part of southeast and abruptly change the conversation to something innocuous, like favorite bars or the playoff hopes of the Blazers. If I have to spend 10 minutes bullshitting about an organic wine bar I claim to live near but have no intention of checking out to avoid revealing to potential a neighbor that I happen to sleep in front of their house in a creepy van a few times a week, so be it. Diminishing sanity is an acceptable loss when you don't have a rent check to write every month.
Ilgunas finally broke down and told a few classmates to test the waters and, more importantly, escape his anti-social prison of clandestine living. The response wasn't at all what he expected: besides asking where he took showers and relieved himself daily, no one thought it was that weird. The response he got from a writing professor, however, was out of left field. With connections at Salon Magazine, he knew the story of a young guy in post-recession America living in his van to escape debt had legs.
While worried about getting found out by the university, Ilgunas also knew the opportunity to get his inspirational story of simple living in the strangest of circumstances would be foolish to turn down. At the very least, he knew it's what his philosopher "man-crush" Henry David Thoreau would've done.
"I think there's something very important about carrying out the experiment in public view because you're not a hermit anymore, " Ilgunas said of Walden, Thoreau's transcendentalist tome that served as true north for much of his wanderings prior to the van experiment. "You're an ascetic. You're putting on this performance to show society that hey, we don't need all these things. Throughout history you have lots of ascetics- Gandhi, Diogenes, Jesus- these are all people who are showing the public different ways of living and maybe through their extreme examples they can get people to reexamine their own values."
Walden On Wheels is about living in a van to save money, but it's also about taking control of your life and realizing you're as free as you allow yourself to be. The van certainly helped, but that's only half the story. While Ilgunas can't recommend re-enacting his experiment to everyone, he's adamant about living simply and seeking adventure being the real prerequisites to adult life for any young person.
"Live with some balls," he said. "Take chances. Take risks. Listen to those voices within. It has nothing to do with getting an education or hitchhiking across the continent or living in a van—I don't want that to be the message of the story. It's rather just to live boldly and adventurously and without regret."
Besides living in a 96 square foot box with no electricity or running water, it's been business as usual since arriving in Portland back in May. I've got a handful of friends, a favorite bar that has cheap tallboys and Galaga, and a barista gig at a coffee shop a few blocks away from the shady parking spot I like to call "home". Since buying a 12-volt fridge and a butane stove, I've also figured out how to save a ton of money by cooking my own meals. Eating grilled cheese sandwiches five times a week may be the only path to conquering my own personal mountain of debt by next year's MusicFestNW, but I'm in no position to complain. I've got a roof over my head, a job, and I love grilled cheese sandwiches.